Rita Moreno Almost Pulled Out Of ‘West Side Story’ Because Of An Offensive Line About Puerto Rico In the Song ‘America’
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In a recent interview, Rita Moreno revealed that one of the original lyrics in the song “America” was so offensive, she almost pulled out of the movie.
After Rita Moreno won the role of Anita through an intense audition process, she remembered one lyric that made her think twice about continuing with the project. In an interview promoting her new documentary with NPR’s Fresh Air, Moreno explained the entire story.
“I was jubilant and thrilled [to get the role] because it’s a wonderful part, as you know,” Rita Moreno said. “And then, just before I signed my contract, I suddenly remembered, to my horror, that the verse to ‘America”‘ goes like this: Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases. And it suddenly occurred to me – oh, my God. I can’t sing that. I can’t sing that like that in that form. I can’t do this. I can’t do this to my people.”
As a refresher, Moreno’s character, Anita, is originally from Puerto Rico. However, Anita much prefers her life in the mainland U.S. The entire premise of the song “America” hinges on the male Puerto Ricans and the female Puerto Ricans arguing over which location is better–Puerto Rico or the mainland U.S.
“I really, really, desperately wanted that part,” Rita Moreno said. “And I had it. It was in my hands. But then there was this verse. And I was this close to turning it down with breaking heart.”
Moreno said that she herself was too nervous and too powerless in Hollywood to ask the musical’s lyricist, Steven Sondheim, to change the lyric. Luckily, another producer convinced Sondheim to change it, much to Moreno’s relief. The lyric ended up being: “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion – let it sink back in the ocean.”
Rita Moreno explained that the revised version of “America” resonated “beautifully” with her loved ones back in Puerto Rico.
“Actually, it resonated beautifully. The fact that there was a person playing a Puertorriquena in a huge, successful musical was enough for a lot of Hispanics, not just Puerto Ricans, in this country to be thrilled to pieces,” Moreno said.
“The fact that there were mistakes made and colors confused, nationalities, was almost beyond the point because we were just so glad to be paid attention to for a change…And it helped to inform a lot of people who were not Hispanic about what we were about.”
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